If you visited Tesco at Broadbridge Heath In the last weekend of November you could not fail to be impressed by the enthusiasm of volunteers, including many youngsters, in collecting groceries donated from the public to supply our county’s 12 food banks.
Doubtless they were motivated by the report that referrals to the Trussell Trust’s Sussex food banks had doubled since 2013 to reach 25,000 visits in the last year.
Fast forward just a couple of weeks to the WSCC meeting on December 12 where a motion to provide the certainty of £70K (ring fenced) infrastructure funding to local food banks in the 2015/16 budget was heavily defeated. If you thought the failure of the motion for WSCC to become a Living Wage employer was a disgrace, the latest debate has plunged their reputation to new depths.
The proposal did acknowledge the £50K or so support provided by WSCC via the Local Assistance Network (LAN) over the last two years, whilst also noting that the LAN fund itself was now under threat from central government cuts. Additionally some County Local Committees had generously provided unspent funds remaining in their Community Initiative Fund (CIF) allocation, amounting to a further £15K at the end of 2013/14. So demonstrably and evidently the council saw the food banks as ‘worthy’ and the questions that should seemingly have been debated were; shall we have a specific budgetary amount and if so, was the amount realistic for the coming budgetary year? (N.B. Earlier in the same meeting council members had debated how they would meet their overall budget for 2015/16 of around £515,000,000).
Watch and listen to the archived webcast at www.westsussex.gov.uk and you will hear how instead there was a lecture from the ‘ruling class’ as to the reasons why it would be ‘financially reckless’ or ‘plain wrong’ to specifically budget to target support at such critical facilities.
For example: What other service must be cut or axed in order to do this, after all it is a genuine zero sum game? It won’t help educate these people to manage money and understand that borrowing from payday lenders is very expensive compared to credit unions? It doesn’t address the issue of getting people back into work. It won’t help educate people as to the financial consequences of personal/lifestyle choices and understand how to live within their means. We don’t want to blur the lines between charity support and council support etc. etc.
All the minority parties spoke in favour pointing out that this emergency help (often after illness or loss of job) is only given on referral by a GP or social worker and then just three days’ nutritious food is supplied, together with helpful information to encourage and promote future self-sufficiency. Also pointed out was the fact that the funding was needed for infrastructure (e.g. premises, shelving etc.) and not the food itself, which is generally well supported already.
As for financial discipline, remember that it was WSCC who granted HDC £565,000 (from the KickStart fund) for the recent West Street enhancements, accepting (in their words) ‘light touch’ project justification. That money would have satisfied this particular funding request eight times over.
Still, better to have (wavy) lines in the paving than to line hungry people’s stomachs, I suppose!
Whilst watching the webcast, I thought I must have drifted into a parallel universe, at one point imagining that the county council leader was about to stand up and pronounce, let them eat cake!
Sure enough when the debate moved to a vote, all the ruling party followed the (not invented here) party line and voted it down, despite the opposing minority parties being unanimously in favour. (We should of course know by now, that the ruling party have a monopoly of sound ideas).
Thankfully, on conclusion of the debate, the ‘Chair’ appeared to finally show a twinge of conscience by suggesting that the sponsor of the failed motion speak to the Cabinet Member for Finance about possibly making grant applications to some existing council funds.
At last, a crumb of compassion in the true spirit of Christmas!
Cox Green, Rudgwick